Islington wants to buy Clerkenwell Fire Station for use as affordable housing – as empty building costs taxpayer half a million pounds

Clerkenwell Fire Station

Clerkenwell Fire Station - Credit: Archant

Islington Council is in discussions about buying Clerkenwell Fire Station for use as affordable housing and workspace – as the cost to the taxpayer of keeping it shut approaches half a million pounds.

Islington Council is in discussions about buying Clerkenwell Fire Station for use as affordable housing and workspace – as the cost to the taxpayer of keeping it shut approaches half a million pounds .

The London Fire Brigade today confirmed it has paid £416,426 in security costs for the empty fire station, in Rosebery Avenue, between 2014 and the end of last month. It has also paid £69,921 on utilities, rates, maintenance and other costs; bringing the total cost to £486,347.

In a response to London Assembly Member Andrew Dismore in June, mayor Sadiq Khan – who is now responsible for the brigade’s estates following the winding up of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority – said: “Islington Council has expressed an interest in bidding for the site to deliver a mixed-use proposal including social housing and affordable workspace.

“Their ability to proceed with a bid is dependent upon whether external grant funding can be secured.”

The council is understood to have applied unsuccessfully to a government pot containing business rates cash. It is yet to hear back about an application to Sadiq Khan’s £70million Good Growth Fund.

Islington’s housing chief Diarmaid Ward today said: “Islington faces a housing crisis and we’re committed to delivering the genuinely affordable housing Islington desperately needs.

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“We believe Clerkenwell Fire Station has huge potential to deliver social housing and also affordable workspace, and we are continuing to work with the Fire Service to develop and explore this idea.”

This cash for security at the site is coming from the London Fire Commissioner’s premises security budget, at a monthly charge of £7,500 – but building maintenance and any other costs haven’t been included in this sum, meaning the total cost to the public purse is conceivably far higher.

Paul Embery, London rep for the Fire Brigade Union, told the Gazette: “It’s a real tragedy the station’s been closed down for the past four years when it could have been providing extra protection for people.

“There were three fire stations in the borough – Clerkenwell was closed, and Islington and Holloway have both had a fire engine taken away, which has had a big impact on safety by increasing response times.

“We warned everyone this would happen and have been proved right but Boris Johnson didn’t listen.

“The problem is, once a fire station has been closed, it can be difficult to reopen; but we want to see that happen so it can provide the extra cover people need.”

In 2014 firefighters campaigned against the closure of 10 stations in London, including Clerkenwell, but the cuts went ahead regardless.

Paul added: “One of our fears is that when we have fewer resources on the ground it means a fire can get much bigger before there are enough people there to tackle it.”

In 2016 the Gazette revealed the empty station had cost the taxpayer £264,000 to date, and since then it has continued to sit unused incurring costs.

Paul, 43, who has been a firefighter for 21 years, said: “Clerkenwell has been closed for four years but it’s still an empty shell and taxpayers have paid something like hundreds of thousands to keep it there.

“The really sad thing is Clerkenwell was one of the oldest fire stations in Europe. It was opened in the 19th century and has been standing on Rosebery Avenue for 140 years.”

He added the station was also historically “pivotal” in the introduction of more robust safety equipment for firefighters, after Jack For-Wells and Richard Stocking died in the Smithfield Market blaze in 1958.

Both men were first responders from the local Clerkenwell Fire Station who died while wearing early breathing apparatus 60 years ago.

Their bravery led to the fire brigade upgrading its equipment and introducing compressed air breathing gear.

The shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry (Lab, Islington South) today told the Gazette: “For five years, I have been fighting alongside the FBU and local residents for the Clerkenwell Station to remain open.

“I have been both concerned and dismayed not just that the initial decision to close it went ahead, but also that the station should have sat empty and unused for the past four years, draining much needed funds from the London Fire Brigade.

“It is a truly infuriating situation, and I strongly support the calls of Paul Embery for the station to be re-opened.

“But if that really is not a possibility, then I would urge that this iconic building should be refurbished with the utmost urgency and should be turned into affordable housing, so at least it can be put to the benefit of local residents in another way.”

A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said: “It’s important this iconic building is put to the best possible use, including considering how it could contribute to the mayor’s plans for more affordable homes for Londoners.

“We are currently continuing discussions with the London Borough of Islington about the feasibility of it acquiring the freehold interest in the property to provide affordable housing and workspace.”